Convenient in both its lack of equipment requirements and its ability to be performed anywhere, bodyweight training can improve four key components of fitness.
Since the onset of the global pandemic, and throughout subsequent lockdowns, people have sought alternative ways to exercise. When we can’t access a gym or exercise equipment, we get creative with at-home and outdoor workouts, and this has resulted in the increased popularity of bodyweight training.
Bodyweight training is exactly what it sounds like: training that uses your own body’s weight to facilitate fitness improvements. Besides the convenience of requiring no or limited equipment, it can generally be performed anywhere and offers numerous health and performance benefits. Here, we look at how bodyweight training can improve the components of fitness.
1. Cardiovascular Endurance
The first component of fitness is cardiovascular endurance. Bodyweight training has traditionally been seen as a modality to improve strength, but a growing body of research is showing that when performed at high intensity as part of a circuit, it can also substantially improve aerobic endurance.
A popular example of high-intensity circuit training (HICT) is a 7-minute workout featuring 12 different bodyweight exercises, each performed for 30 seconds, with 10-seconds of rest in between. In a study by the Lebanese American University, individuals who completed this workout daily for 7 weeks lost 4cm on average, across their waist.
2. Muscle endurance
Bodyweight training can also positively impact muscle endurance – the muscle’s ability to repeatedly exert force against resistance for extended periods. In fact, researchers at the University of Texas found 14 weeks of bodyweight training improved muscle endurance in the bench press by 43% and squat exercises by 109%, respectively. Despite this, most bodyweight training programs aren’t designed to specifically promote muscle endurance.
Recommendations for improving muscle endurance include using light-to-moderate loads, higher repetitions (15 or more) and short rest periods. Bodyweight exercise, therefore, is a natural fit, given most of the exercises can be scaled to reduce the load and performed in a circuit format.
Bodyweight training can also enhance strength – an important factor in overall health outcomes. For example, a study from Harvard University found that men who could do 40 or more push-ups had a much lower risk of heart disease than those who could do only 10 push-ups. Other research has also shown how important it is to maintain strength with age. Given the importance of maintaining strength, bodyweight training clearly has a role to play in preventing the loss of strength gains when we can’t access gyms and equipment.
However, bodyweight training isn’t usually perceived as being sufficient to increase strength. So how can we manipulate bodyweight training to have a strength focus? The first option is isometric training. A study from the University of Tokyo found that 10 weeks of isometric strength training improved maximal strength by between 14 and 40%.
To train isometric strength, it is generally recommended to sustain a maximal contraction against an immovable object for between three and six seconds, using a work-to-rest ratio of 1 to 8, or one to 10. That is, if you were to contract your muscles for three seconds, you would rest anywhere between 24 to 30 seconds. Simple examples of modifying bodyweight exercises to take on an isometric focus include holding a push-up at the half-way point, or standing on a towel, grasping both ends with your hands and performing a squat when the towel is at maximal length. Performing single-limb variations of exercises such as push-ups and squats is another good way to increase strength training using your body weight.
4. Body composition
Body composition refers to the ratio of lean muscle mass to body fat. While bodybuilders tend to follow higher load training programs, using machines and free weights, research has shown that low load high volume training can be similarly effective in achieving lean muscle mass.
Lower load training uses lighter weights, but with more repetitions (20-30 until fatigue). The most important thing when bodyweight training for lean muscle development is to ensure the set is taken to the point where another repetition – with good technique – is not possible.
Yes, bodyweight training is training with load
Make no mistake, training with your bodyweight is training with load. For instance, the percentage of body weight in a full push up is around 70%, so a 100kg individual is lifting 70kg on each repetition, which is enough load to stimulate strength improvements in most people. In a bodyweight squat, the legs make up about 40% of the total bodyweight, so, again, the amount of load lifted in the exercise approaches 70% of your bodyweight. In chin-ups, the entire body is being lifted, so each repetition is 100% of body weight.
In part two of this article, we look at how to safely undertake this type of exercise, as well as how bodyweight training can be used to help rehabilitate from other injuries.